She found paths of mindfulness and compassion in the wilds of Alaska, atop a mountain in Costa Rica and on New York City streets and crowded subways. And in so doing Rabbi Rachel Cowan helped a generation of Jews chart a course toward a different kind of spirituality, one based in humanity, activism and humility.
Rabbi Cowan, an author, foundation executive and teacher, was a soulful, vibrant, creative, accomplished leader of the Jewish people. She died in her Manhattan home last Friday evening after an 18-month struggle with brain cancer. She was 77. As speaker after speaker underlined Tuesday at her memorial service at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, she had an endless capacity for love.
Over a varied career, she brought social justice to the forefront of Jewish life, helped build the Jewish healing movement, furthered understanding of Jewish spirituality and mindfulness and built new institutions and initiatives that advanced the causes closest to her.
When she was presented with an honorary doctorate from JTS last May, Chancellor Arnold Eisen acknowledged her “indelible contributions to the Jewish world.”
Rabbi Cowan’s spirituality was grounded in everyday life: in her appreciation of nature, in the way she asked people to tell their stories and listened to their responses. She was known widely as “Rachel.” It would be hard to find a Jewish leader as beloved.
“She was an extraordinary, ordinary person, who was able to find love, build love, give love, and in combination with her big brain and boundless curiosity and sense of compassion, that love brought her to great places and to do great things,” her daughter, Lisa Cowan, said at the memorial service, attended by about 700 people.
Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein, began the service with a meditation in which he asked those present to close their eyes, breathe, and visualize a moment with Rachel. After talks by family members and friends, the service concluded the with the singing of “If I Had A Hammer” and, after the Hebrew memorial prayers and Kaddish, “We Shall Overcome.” That was sung at the 1988 funeral of her late husband, writer and activist Paul Cowan.
Rabbi Cowan successfully channeled her own life challenges and experiences into innovations in Jewish life for others — always a few steps ahead: A Jew by choice, she did outreach and teaching to those considering intermarriage and conversion, and wrote a book with Paul, “Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage.”
After Paul died of leukemia, she completed her studies for rabbinic ordination at Hebrew Union College. She and four women who suffered losses began looking to Jewish tradition to find ways to bring comfort, and drew on liturgy to create healing services and training for rabbis and others.
Writer Nessa Rapoport, who worked with Rabbi Cowan in creating the Jewish healing movement, told The Jewish Week, “Rachel turned her grief into something to bring comfort to everyone.”
For 14 years, as program director for Jewish life at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Rabbi Cowan launched and funded programs in the arts, social justice, spirituality and more, and then went on to co-found and then run the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), leading retreats for rabbis and others, introducing contemplative practices. She then became increasingly interested in the intersections of aging and spirituality, and began leading workshops and wrote a book (with Linda Thal), “Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit.”
Her son Matthew Cowan spoke at the service of his mother’s “great American second act” after Paul’s death.
“Rachel was truly a spiritual midwife to a generation of seekers,” Marvin Israelow, a friend and board member of IJS, said in a talk at the memorial. “Her fundamental goodness sought out the goodness in others. She possessed an uncanny ability to identify, connect with and illuminate the spark of holiness in her friends.”
Rabbis Bronstein and Cowan, classmates at HUC who shared a passion for nature and meditation, began leading contemplative services at BJ. They also spent two decades teaching about the contemplative tradition in Judaism. For several years, Rabbi Cowan joined Rabbi Bronstein in leading mindfulness retreats in nature in Costa Rica, combining meditation, movement, prayer and social justice.
“Her essence was kindness,” he told The Jewish Week. “In Costa Rica, she would sit with the workers in the kitchen and talk with them in Spanish about their families. They waited for her each year, and they were all praying for her.”
Rachel Ann Brown was born in Princeton, N.J. Her father was a Mayflower descendant and her mother’s roots went back to the Puritans. She met Paul Cowan in 1963, when they were both involved in the Civil Rights movement. They served together in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. As Paul became increasingly interested in Judaism, which he knew little about, she also began to identify with Judaism and the Jewish people. When she converted to Judaism in 1980, she said, as quoted in Paul’s memoir, “An Orphan in History,” “I have always been proud to be a Yankee from New England. Now I am proud to be a Jew.” She also said: “My conversion officially marks a love I’ve already experienced very deeply.”
In a telephone call, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of HUC in Jerusalem, recalled first meeting Rabbi Cowan at the Shabbat table of her father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, who was instrumental in the Cowans’ involvement with revitalizing Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side. “Paul was effusive and she was quiet, and she turned that graceful, loving, gentle, listening presence into a powerhouse of Jewish activism.”
They later worked together on projects in Israel.
“Rachel was a catalyst for the Israeli Jewish renaissance movement when she was at Cummings,” Rabbi Kelman said, explaining that Rabbi Cowan discovered third generation secular Israelis who wanted to return to Jewish texts and started funding relevant institutions, and also helped fund a coalition of similar organizations. Rabbi Cowan was the kind of funder who frequently hosted grantees in her Upper West Side home.
Rabbi Bronstein recalled joining Rabbi Cowan on site visits to potential grantees in Israel.
“Rachel said that to deal with money in a mindful way was one of the most incredible teachers in her life. She put herself in a place of humility, clarity and strength and sometimes had to say no. She didn’t enjoy that power — she wrestled with the responsibility — she didn’t want to ever think that the power belonged to her.”
Rabbi Cowan was also involved beyond the Jewish community, serving as a founding board member of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a community organization in Harlem providing multi-layered support services and leadership programs for youth.
In fact, when she turned 75, she hosted a birthday party in the organization’s backyard, aiming to raise $75,000 — and she raised $100,000 — for a Mind, Body and Spirit Wellness Room.
Khary Lazarre-White, executive director and co-founder of Bro/Sis, described her in an email as “a force, a profound spiritual presence. Rachel walked through the world with love and deep commitment to the ideals of community and humanity. She lived her word.”
For several summers, Rabbi Cowan co-led trips to southern Alaska, combining kayaking, prayer and meditation. Rochelle Friedlich, a Manhattan social worker who participated, told The Jewish Week, “Rachel was so in her element — she was the spiritual life force of the trip, accompanying us to incredibly beautiful, peaceful places. After kayaking, she’d sit on the porch with binoculars, watching the birds.”
While she felt at home in nature and helped others to do the same, Rabbi Cowan also found paths of mindfulness and compassion to be practiced on New York City streets and crowded subways. “Imagine what these people have gone through,” she would say.
Lisa Cowan told The Jewish Week that in her illness, her mother was able to use the mindfulness techniques that she had taught to others. “She regained her equanimity quickly after each loss — it was remarkable. She had an ability to be in the moment, even when really terrifying things were looming.”
She also kept up her activism. Last year, in a video, she urged lawmakers to keep the Affordable Care Act alive.
The novelist Ruby Namdar, a neighbor in Rabbi Cowan’s Riverside Drive building, told The Jewish Week, “If I was to summarize my experience of Rachel I would use the mystical, chasidic term reiach tahara (a whiff of purity) that likens the experience of holiness to a sensory experience. Every time I met her, even in passing, I sensed this whiff of holiness. Everything about her was fragrant with it.”
Rachel Cowan was buried on Martha’s Vineyard, alongside Paul. She is survived by her daughter and son, two sisters, a brother and four grandchildren. Next year, BJ will dedicate its chapel in her honor. PJC